The origins of Japanese horror can be prominently traced back to the 17th century, which in Japan was the time of the Edo period (1603-1868) where under a more unified rule, arts and culture began to prosper. Known as Kaidan in Japanese, the word directly translates into “talks of the strange”. These are folklore that were often passed down from family and friends as a way to describe their own encounters of the incomprehensible, such as ghost sightings, natural disasters and other ill fortune events, or to creatively illustrate social injustices that frequently depict a wrongdoer and a ghost who seeks vengeance upon them.
People of different social status started to pay attention to the pleasantries of life due to economic growth and relative peace, and thus this environment became a hatching ground for the tales of horror that not only was used to depict the different realities of the people, but as proper entertainment in the form of a game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A hundred tales of ghost stories). This was a game that most sections of society engaged in, be it samurai or peasant; a group of people gather and trade these horror stories while each blowing out a candle from a hundred as a testament of courage. The immense popularity of this game brought about a literature explosion of horror stories, from household to household both near and faraway, with some coming all the way from China.
Then with the acquisition of the printing press, literature became more widespread and accessible, and the genre of the strange, in the form of Kaidanshu (ghost story books), was officially born. This laid the foundation in which most, if not all Japanese horror films found inspiration from. Fast forward to the late 18th century, where film was invented, two shorts were made in Japan in 1898, named Shinin no Sosei (Dead man’s resurrection) and Bake Jizo (Ghost Statue). These films, now presumed lost, are considered the first horror/supernatural films made in Japan and in the whole world. Owning to Japan’s infatuation with these tales of the spirits and demons, it can be counted upon that one of their earliest films produced would portray the genre, marking the importance of the horror genre in the history of Japanese cinema. Another example is from one of the most famous Kaidan of all time, Yotsuya Kaidan, a story of a wrongfully murdered wife, Oiwa, and her ghostly revenge against her husband Iemon, who committed the murder and adultery. The story, which was originally written in 1825 by Nanboku Tsuruya IV as a kabuki play, draws from the common theme of a female ghost’s revenge against her killer in Kaidan stories, often resulting in the deaths of multiple characters connected to her murderer, yet we the audience sympathize with the vengeance of the ghost. As film, it was first adapted in 1912, and was re-adapted repeatedly in different times of cinematic development, from silent films to narrated, colored to the use of CGI, up until recently in 2014. The intertwining of theater, literature and film inspired by these narratives, continued to contribute towards each other even now. These narratives, which came from Kaidan, laid the foundation with its roots deep in the development of Japanese cinema, and reoccurring narratives such as the “female ghost revenge” mentioned above is continually used to inspire future Japanese horror films, like Ju-On.
While film is a universal language, it still requires a pathway in which to reach audiences from around the world. This is especially true for other non-Hollywood films where lower budgets and less international exposure leads to low confidence for cinemas to showcase them. Japanese Horror was still widely unknown among the western audience with the exception of cult film fans during the time where Hollywood remakes began to appear. Remakes of Japanese films started around early to mid 60’s, where Shichinin no Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961) were remade into The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), it was not widely known by the audience at the time that it was largely inspired by the two Japanese films mentioned above, even though they were considered Western classics. This was the time where filmmakers themselves shared their knowledge of their craft, and these films mark the first tangible integration between Japanese and American film culture. Even though these remakes grabbed the attention of film lovers, in the horror department Hollywood had started to come to a stalemate in the late 1990s. During that time, classics such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), its remakes, and the Friday the 13th sequels has started to lose its charm.
The low exposure of Japan cinema internationally was less of a problem than an opportunity for both sides, as profit seemed a definite possibility if films from the East could make its way through to the Western audience more effectively. It was not until 2001 that distribution of East Asian films and with it, Japanese Horror, was made available to the UK and later on to parts of the US by Tartan Films, a distribution label that grouped East Asian films together, packaged it, and re-branded it into “Asian Extreme”, a term coined by the company. As the name suggests, it served to establish a dangerous yet enticing theme for these films that attracted film lovers, being made readily available in big DVD stores. This “new genre” of films appealed mainly to cult film fanatics at first, but soon expanded to others such as those interested in cinema world, granting them easy access to these “exotic” films. This can be argued as the advent of Japanese horror in Western culture and soon after, the start of their Hollywood remakes.
- Hantke, S., 2005. ‘Japanese Horror Under Western Eyes: Social Class and Global Culture in Miike Takashi’s Audition’. In: J. McRoy, ed. Japanese Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 53-65.
- Zack Davisson, https://hyakumonogatari.com/what-are-kaidan/, 2010
- Hiroshi Komatsu, The Lumiere Cinematographe and the Production of the Cinema in Japan in the Earliest Period, Film History Vol. 8, No. 4, International Trends in Film Studies (1996), p. 436-7.
- The Grudge (2002). How and Why did Hollywood start remaking Asian movies?